More than a year into the pandemic, why are we still panic buying?

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As Australia's first lockdowns were announced in March last year, amid scenes of panic buying at supermarkets, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a stern message.

"On bulk purchasing of supplies: Stop hoarding. I can't be more blunt about it. Stop it," he said on March 18, 2020.

"It is not sensible, it is not helpful, and it has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis.

"That is not who we are as a people. It is not necessary. It is not something that people should be doing."

But as a fresh wave of lockdowns were announced in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin and even Alice Springs, the queues outside supermarkets and bottle shops returned.

But why is panic buying still happening when authorities regularly remind people they're still allowed to leave home for essential reasons and supermarkets stay open?

Who is panic buying?

Macquarie University associate professor Melissa Norberg, a psychologist specialising in anxiety, hoarding and related issues, conducted research into last year's panic buying.

She found that the people most likely to panic buy were those who already had anxiety about their personal health, people who perceived products would be scarce — and people who saw others panic buying.

Turning to possessions can be a deep habitual instinct to calm our anxieties, Dr Norberg said, but the reality is that stocking up on toilet paper doesn't mean we will necessarily feel better.

"For Sydney, since this is just the second time we've gone into lockdown, I think it's because we haven't really learned that it's not the pasta and toilet paper that is getting us through the lockdowns," she said.

"I was told that Victoria engaged in less panic buying [this time around], and they definitely have more experience than we have in being lockdown."

University of the Sunshine Coast psychology lecturer Jacob Keech and his colleague Karina Rune also studied the phenomenon.

They too found that a fear of product shortages was largely behind queues forming at Coles and Woolworths within minutes of a lockdown being announced.

Dr Keech said the research found that panic buyers largely saw their actions as sensible, and even harmless, in the circumstances.

He said panic buying lessened during consecutive lockdowns as people became more familiar with the process and authorities reiterated messages about shops staying open.

"What I've really seen from politicians and the public health officials is their public messaging has become more evolved and sophisticated," Dr Keech said.

"The content of what they're saying is quite consistent with what we'd say on the basis of our research."

Retail spikes

Panic buying isn't new — during World War II, rationing on clothes and some groceries and newspapers sparked frenzied buying sprees across Australia.

In May 1942, McWhirters – one of the largest stores in Brisbane – reported "sheer bedlam" as people "stampeded in" to buy up everything possible.

Pound notes were "flung across the counters as though they grow on apple trees", one West Australian paper reported, while Sydney newspapers reported shortages on butter and cheese.

From a retail perspective, a sudden rush on goods can cause difficulties for supermarkets, Queensland University of Technology retail and consumer behaviour expert Gary Mortimer said.

Supermarket chains use long-term forecasts to determine how much of a product to order on a weekly basis.

"When we see a spike like [this week], that knocks that trend forecast out, that creates significant problems right across the supply chain," Dr Mortimer said.

"That then puts a significant impact on orders being sent from warehouses, so … orders would have spiked in a number of categories.

"The challenge is when that stock arrives in stores … there's no demand for it, so that creates overstock."

Take stock, not toilet paper

So is panic buying a problem, or is it a legitimate comfort mechanism to help people get through a stressful time?

Dr Keech said while supermarkets needed to put limits on some products during panic buying, those limits could help drive the perception of scarcity.

"Unfortunately that is a necessary strategy to implement, but of course that in itself does have consequences," he said.

Older people who can't get to the shops easily or people in quarantine may suddenly find it difficult to access things they genuinely need during moments of panic buying.

Dr Norberg said she was contacted by people in rural communities last year who said they couldn't access basic supplies as panic buying in cities chewed up supply.

She said people feeling anxious about people in lockdown who might use shopping to regulate their emotions and ease anxiety.

"What we also found in the research that people who panic bought in March [last year], six months later they were more likely to engage in greater levels of hoarding," Dr Norberg said.

If people are feeling anxious about an impending lockdown and are tempted to head to the shops, Dr Norberg says they should pause and reflect on what got them through a previous lockdown — social connections with friends and family, regular exercise, and so on.

"Go home, take stock of what you actually have in your own house," she said.

"Think about the distress you're feeling — in most cases it's probably pretty minimal distress.

"From zero to 100, with 100 thinking we're going to die in the moment it's so bad, the anxiety we're feeling from this lockdown is probably a 15 or 20."

Sticking to a shopping list and reminding yourself of what you have at home can help reduce the impulse to grab a second pack of toilet paper, just in case.

"If you see other people doing it and shelves empty, just keep sticking to that list of what you need and reminding yourself that you can get through it," Dr Norberg said.

(Original ABC Article)